Bede

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Bede : biography

– 26 May 0735

Modern historians and editors of Bede have been lavish in their praise of his achievement in the Historia Ecclesiastica. Stenton regarded it as one of the "small class of books which transcend all but the most fundamental conditions of time and place", and regarded its quality as dependent on Bede’s "astonishing power of co-ordinating the fragments of information which came to him through tradition, the relation of friends, or documentary evidence … In an age where little was attempted beyond the registration of fact, he had reached the conception of history."Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England, p. 187. Patrick Wormald described him as "the first and greatest of England’s historians".Wormald, The Making of English Law, p. 29

The Historia Ecclesiastica has given Bede a high reputation, but his concerns were different from those of a modern writer of history. His focus on the history of the organisation of the English church, and on heresies and the efforts made to root them out, led him to exclude the secular history of kings and kingdoms except where a moral lesson could be drawn or where they illuminated events in the church. Besides the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the medieval writers William of Malmesbury, Henry of Huntingdon, and Geoffrey of Monmouth used his works as sources and inspirations. Early modern writers, such as Polydore Vergil and Matthew Parker, the Elizabethan Archbishop of Canterbury, also utilised the Historia, and his works were used by both Protestant and Catholic sides in the Wars of Religion.

Some historians have questioned the reliability of some of Bede’s accounts. One historian, Charlotte Behr, thinks that the Historia’s account of the arrival of the Germanic invaders in Kent should not be considered to relate what actually happened, but rather relates myths that were current in Kent during Bede’s time.Behr "Origins of Kingship" Early Medieval Europe pp. 25–52

It is likely that Bede’s work, because it was so widely copied, discouraged others from writing histories and may even have led to the disappearance of manuscripts containing older historical works.Plummer, Bedae Opera Historica, vol. I, p. xlvii and note.

Notes

Vernacular poetry

According to his disciple Cuthbert, Bede was also doctus in nostris carminibus ("learned in our songs"). Cuthbert’s letter on Bede’s death, the Epistola Cuthberti de obitu Bedae, moreover, commonly is understood to indicate that Bede also composed a five line vernacular poem known to modern scholars as Bede’s Death Song

And he used to repeat that sentence from St. Paul “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” and many other verses of Scripture, urging us thereby to awake from the slumber of the soul by thinking in good time of our last hour. And in our own language,—for he was familiar with English poetry,—speaking of the soul’s dread departure from the body:
Facing that enforced journey, no man can be

More prudent than he has good call to be, If he consider, before his going hence, What for his spirit of good hap or of evil After his day of death shall be determined.

Fore ðæm nedfere nænig wiorðe

ðonc snottora ðon him ðearf siæ to ymbhycgenne ær his hinionge hwæt his gastæ godes oððe yfles æfter deað dæge doemed wiorðe.:Colgrave and Mynors, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, pp. 580–3

As Opland notes, however, it is not entirely clear that Cuthbert is attributing this text to Bede: most manuscripts of the letter do not use a finite verb to describe Bede’s presentation of the song, and the theme was relatively common in Old English and Anglo-Latin literature. The fact that Cuthbert’s description places the performance of the Old English poem in the context of a series of quoted passages from Sacred Scripture, indeed, might be taken as evidence simply that Bede also cited analogous vernacular texts.Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, pp. 140–141 On the other hand, the inclusion of the Old English text of the poem in Cuthbert’s Latin letter, the observation that Bede "was learned in our song," and the fact that Bede composed a Latin poem on the same subject all point to the possibility of his having written it. By citing the poem directly, Cuthbert seems to imply that its particular wording was somehow important, either since it was a vernacular poem endorsed by a scholar who evidently frowned upon secular entertainmentMcCready, Miracles and the Venerable Bede, pp. 14–19 or because it is a direct quotation of Bede’s last original composition.See Jeff Opland, Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, pp. 140–141 for a discussion